We were married for a little more than two years, and it was the best time of my life. We shared the small dormitory in the temple, decorated by the many different trinkets and memories we collected when we traveled together during his service missions. Most of the trinkets were simple knick-knacks like strangely large shells from the beach or the flute Heath bought me. A woman was playing the flute at a campsite and I found the music mesmerizing, so Heath bought one for me and I learned how to play for him. We spent every moment of every day together, and spent our nights joined in love, ignoring the cares of the world around us.
On a service mission a few months ago, we found ourselves far to the north by the sea. A traveling bard, a strange elf man, told us tales of a strange land far away that could be only accessed by ship and the favor of the gods. It was called the Emerald Isles, a fantastic and beautiful land of myth and mystery. It sat in the Forgotten Sea and was made of a large continent surrounded by innumerable small islands, each with stories of their own. The natives of the Emerald Isles were said to be exotic creatures, similar to the humans and elves of Ylisse, but with magic ingrained into their very beings. Settlers from the rest of Xerender found the Emerald Isles an age ago.
But the greatest story of the bard’s tale was that of the Dragonlords. The Dragonlords were an order of heroes that rode atop fearsome dragons, protecting the Emerald Isles and feared by the gods themselves. The weapons and treasures of the Dragonlords were lost to history, but those of an adventurous heart could find them and achieve great things.
We scraped together whatever meager coins we had, working however we could so we could afford passage to the Emerald Isles together. I used my free time to sew clothes to sell in town or on the road during our travels. Eventually we had the money to make the journey. Mother was understandably upset that we would be leaving, but acknowledged the necessity to leave the temple and find a home for ourselves.
It never came to pass. Raiders came to our town and burned the temple. We protected ourselves as best as we could. I fell with two crossbow bolts lodged into my stomach, but that was nothing compared to the pain of seeing the raiders descend on my husband.
“Heath!” I cried out, screaming in pain and panic. I was having a nightmare. At least, I had hoped. I was drenched in sweat and something else, something that was making me sick to my stomach. Actually, something was on my stomach, making the sheets stick to me. I gasped for breath, but breathing was agony. The pain ripped through my stomach and caused me to collapse backwards onto the pillow of my bed. I swooned, trying to remain conscious, and closed my eyes. Focus on something else. Focus on anything.
I opened my eyes and recognized our room in the temple. But it was different somehow, and I couldn’t figure out why. On the bed next to me was a single candle, burning brightly against the darkness. I stretched my arm over to Heath’s side of the bed, but he wasn’t there. I fumbled with the blankets searching for him. Maybe he had rolled over out of reach, or maybe he needed some water.
I reached again, and the pain in my stomach made me cry out. I recoiled, curling myself up. Looking down at myself, I saw my abdomen wrapped in bandages. They were bound tightly around me, but red stains were seeping through. I touched them gingerly and winced.
“Leef,” said Mother.
I hadn’t even noticed she was at my side. She sat on a stool, the one we bought last week, next to the bed. Her hand reached out to mine, squeezing me tightly.
“Where is he,” I choked between jolts of pain.
“You need to rest, daughter,” she said. Her voice was flat. “Lie down. Please.”
“Where is Heath?” I repeated.
Mother rubbed my hand. “You were hurt very badly, child. The High Priest himself performed the healing-”
“Where is my husband?!”
It was quiet in the chapel this late at night, but the room was ever lit by the magical torches. The pews of the chapel were all facing towards the central podium at the far end of the room. It was on this podium that the Dawnbringers read scriptures to the visitors of the temple, something that Heath hated doing because of his stutter. The stained glass behind the podium depicted the Morninglord standing tall and facing down towards the attendants of the chapel. During the day, the sun would rise perfectly through this window, casting a spray of color. Near the podium was a large table with a white and red cloth, upon which were seven ceremonial urns. Each urn was etched with the name of the Dawnbringer who had perished when the raiders fell upon our home.
Heath Wendell’s urn was on the far left.
I collapsed onto the floor, sobbing in anguish and pain. The world was spinning violently. Mother had her arms around me, crying with me. The love of my life, my best friend in the whole world, was gone, gone forever.
How had it come to this? Why did the Morninglord not protect Heath? Was he not as worthy and pious as the others here? Did he not pray morning and night? Was I not worthy of him? Why? Why?
“Control yourself,” said a cold voice. The High Priest walked past us, moving himself between me and Heath’s urn. “This is a place of worship. Keep your voice down.”
Mother’s eyes flashed with anger. “For pity’s sake, Sel Mara,” she snarled. “She just lost her husband.”
The High Priest regarded me and I stared back at him, my eyes full of tears. Would this finally be what softened his heart? To see me so despondent? No, of course not. That would be absurd. Instead, he said, “The world is better for it.”
“What?” I gasped.
“How dare you?” screamed Riesz.
The High Priest slammed his fist onto the table and his face contorted with purple rage. “Do not speak to me like this, Riesz!” he bellowed. “I have had more than enough of this. For fifteen years, this demon has lived among us. This is a sacred temple, a sacred place, and you invited this thieving, conniving, scheming monster into our midst.
“Changelings breed changelings, Riesz. Did I not tell you so? They have had a spy in our home for years. And you have the gall to speak to me in such a way? Bandits and changelings! Changelings and bandits! They go hand in hand. Those were likely its kin. She-” he stopped and spat on me. “She, or he, whatever you are, you practically invited them here. The death of Dawnbringer Inti is your own fault, you damnable creature!”
“No,” I sobbed. “Please, don’t-”
“Silence!” he roared. He kicked at me, striking me in the face. I fell backwards onto the cold stone floor. My scarred stomach raged in agony again. I raised up a feeble hand to my nose, feeling the warmth of blood rush onto my fingers.
The High Priest glared down at me and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. “I allowed you, changeling, to live with us. To live with those innocent orphans. You learned our ways. You learned our culture. What a mistake I made in letting you live.” He stepped towards me. I scrambled back from him. Blood dripped onto the floor, pooling from my broken nose and the red bandages around my middle. “You know not of our ways. Our god is not your god, and He is most displeased with you. You are a heathen!”
“A heathen!” cried Riesz. “Leef, it is dusk. And we must shun the darkness. What do the faithful do, O Seeker of the Light?”
She was reciting. I swallowed, choking up. I knew the scripture. I knew the words. I am faithful. I am a Seeker of Light, as was my beloved husband. I answered, “The Morninglord bears witness of my devotion. I will recite the tenets of faith.”
“Stop this at once,” commanded the High Priest.
“Watch each sunrise,” I said, breathing heavily and trying to stop crying. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. “Each day is a gift.”
“Good,” said Mother. A tear streamed down her own face. “Keep going, my child.”
“Always aid. Strive to champion hope, new ideas, and prosperity for all,” I continued. “Think ahead. I will consider the consequences of my actions to bring to pass the greatest and best reward.”
Heath. Oh, Heath.
“Bring hope. Wherever I go, I will plant the seeds of hope for a bright future.”
“Enough!” barked the High Priest. He stepped forward to kick me again, but Riesz jumped to her feet and blocked him.
“Shun the darkness,” I finished. “There is always another dawn.” At this, my composure was gone and I cried bitterly into my hands again.
“You see, Sel Mara?” said Mother, reaching down to try to sooth me. “She is as devoted as any of us. Leef Wendell is one of us, even if you would never permit her to make an oath. How can you not see this after all these years?”
“You think this proves anything?” he seethed. “So! The monster can quote scripture? That does not change the fact that it should not be here. It never should have. What reason did it have to stay other than to steal from us and bring ruin to those blessed by the Morninglord?”
“Heath,” I wailed. “My husband… my…”
“Oh, ho!” he growled. “Therein is my greatest sin. Allowing you to marry.” He turned his face to Riesz. “What if it had a child, Etriel? What if the two of them created another monster?”
The tears stopped now as I started at him in disbelief. Heath had always wanted a child. A family. But I was afraid. There was a good chance it would be just like me. A monster. Ugly gray skin. White, stringy hair. Hideous and pale silver eyes. Heath’s nose. Heath’s smile.
A wild flash came into the High Priest’s eyes. He pointed to my stomach. “It’s a good thing I’ve seen to it that we’ll never have that problem.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. What did he mean? The words rang in my head, echoing violently. The pain in my abdomen… The blood…
Mother’s eyes blazed. “What did you do to her?”
“I cleansed it,” he answered. “I told you, Riesz, this changeling would be your responsibility. But no, you took pity on it. Years later, we still have a monster living with us. Married to a Dawnbringer, no less! But as I have said, the world is better for Inti’s death. Because now, we are finally rid of you, Flee.” His eyes glared at my quaking form. “You will never have children. You will never have a place among us. As soon as you heal, you filthy little idiot, you are hereby banished from this temple.”
Mother was frantic, but I was having trouble paying attention. I was laying on Heath’s side of the bed, hugging his robes to my chest. The Dawnbringers would want robes back. They belonged to the temple, not to the Dawnbringer. Mother kept saying things, asking questions, while moving between the bedroom and the sitting room. I barely noticed when she dragged out a medium-sized chest and was stuffing things into it from the shelves and the closet.
Banished. Thrown out of my only home. All this time, I was never really at home here. They hated me. They all hated me. They always hated me. I was such an idiot for entertaining the idea that I could ever be happy here. And this time, there was no loving Heath to hold me and tell me it would be okay. There was no love in this temple. No fire. No warmth. No color. There was nothing.
“Leef!” shouted Mother.
I jumped, startled. “Mother?”
“You’re not listening to me, daughter,” she said. “I am so truly sorry, but I need you to focus. How much coin do you have?”
The question was confusing. What did that matter? I pointed to a small leather bag near the top shelf by the window. “Heath said-” I started. It hurt to talk about him. “He said we have around one hundred and fifty gold coins saved.”
Mother nodded and grabbed the mirror from my bedside table. She wrapped it in a white linen and placed it in the chest. “I have around fifty. Together, that should be plenty.”
“Plenty,” she repeated. “Starting a new life away from this wretched place is expensive.”
Life away from the temple. That’s what I feared the most. But it was far more fearsome now that nothing could protect me from it. “Where will I go?”
Mother was packing a pair of boots. She stopped, thinking. “That is a good question. North, maybe. Was there any place that you and Heath visited that you could live in?”
The thought came to me very suddenly. “Yes, the Emerald Isles. Heath and I were going there. Some ships up north would take us when we could afford it.”
“I remember you two talking about it. Never heard of that place before. Are you certain it is real?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I think so.”
She opened the drawer of the bedside table and pulled out a perfume bottle. That perfume was a wedding gift from Heath. I felt uncomfortable wearing it because it drew so much attention to me, so I kept it tightly sealed and buried in the drawer. Riesz tossed it into the chest, too. “To the Emerald Isles we go,” she said.
“Yes, of course,” she replied. Mother sat down next to me on the bed. “I am coming with you. After all of this, I cannot abide another day here. You are my family, Leef. You are my child. Where you go, I will go, too.”
It had been six months since Heath died, and two months since the High Priest finally had his way. There was no sending ceremony that usually accompanied the occasion of someone leaving the temple. We just walked out the front door, and no one came to see us off, save for the High Priest himself. Riesz, a faithful cleric for fifty years, was sent out the door without so much as a ‘goodbye’ or ‘good luck.’ The High Priest spit on me.
My wounds healed as much as they could in the time I spent recovering. The scars persisted. Somehow, I could not hide them, which was very alarming to me. I had always been able to change my skin to hide the many scars the orphans had given me during my childhood. These were different. They wouldn’t go away. They still hurt, too. Everything hurt.
Travel was something I had never been accustomed to do. When we went on missions, Heath had always taken charge of the wagon, supplies, and taking care of our horse. He was always willing to let me sleep in the wagon if it was too cold to sleep by him on the ground. At first, we tried to sleep together in the wagon, but there was barely enough room for the two of us. We thought it would be intimate to sleep in such a manner, but Heath liked to roll over in his sleep, oblivious to the world around him. On the first night of our travels to the north, he had spun around so many times while sleeping that he somehow kicked me in the head. From then on, we laid bedrolls on the ground until I got cold and he lifted me into the wagon.
I did the same for Mother. She was nearly ninety years old now, quite advanced in age for one of her kind. The wagon was the most comfortable sleeping arrangement I could make for her, so I slept on the cold ground. It was miserable, partly because my husband was gone and also because a small spider skittered across my bedroll on the first night, alarming me and keeping me awake.
Travel was difficult for Mother, especially. I suspected this was mostly due to her age, but she told me stories of her younger years when she and her late husband traveled. Apparently, Riesz did not travel very often anymore. She was one of few dragonborn in the area and people were seldom willing to receive her in their homes or inns. For the first few days since our departure from the temple of the Morninglord, Mother was in good spirits. She did her best to entertain me, hopeful to keep my attention on the road and not on the passing of my husband.
Two months into our journey, however, I noticed Riesz’s health was starting to suffer. She was tired practically all of the time, and had great difficulty climbing into or out of the wagon. I had to help her down to the ground for the Sacraments of Sunrise and Sunset. Whenever I said anything to her about it, Mother just waved her hand irritably and said, “I’m fine. Don’t fret about me.”
Travel was difficult for me, too, but for selfish reasons. Mother insisted that we did not partake of any wines or spirits while on the road. Ever since I was a child, Heath and I had liked to steal ale or other adult beverages from the mess hall in the temple. We had been scolded many times, and I always lied to Mother that I would stop. Drinking made me feel better. It made my head quieter. It made me sleepy, and sleep brought dreams of Heath. But Mother would not allow it on the road.
Once, our travel was halted entirely. In the many weeks since Heath’s death, I had been inconsolable. This was the worst day yet, though. I dreamt of him again and woke up to tears, desperately trying to remember every detail of our time together. Mother told me that Heath would be in the Morninglord’s Embrace now, and that thought triggered something in my head.
I don’t even remember pulling the dagger across my wrists. It was automatic. There should have been pain. There should have been a sensation. Any sensation. But it was numb, as numb as the world around me. There wasn’t even a sensation of blood draining from my veins. Feeling returned only when I saw Mother, anguished and crying, healing me with magic to close the wounds.
She was saying something. What, though? What was so important? Why are her hands trembling? It doesn’t even hurt. Why is she crying?
We didn’t travel that day. I stayed in the wagon, wrapped tightly in a blanket, not saying anything except when Mother asked me direct questions. She created a campfire for us and kept it lit throughout the day and night, hobbling around our small campsite with her cane. I tried hard, very hard, to focus and converse, but the empty, hollow pain had returned.
The Sacrament of Sunset came, and I mechanically followed Mother in the prayer before helping her into the wagon so she could rest. She was fast asleep when I cut myself again, this time across my neck. It would be faster this way, right? Would I see Heath sooner? But Mother… She would never forgive me.
It wasn’t painless this time. It wasn’t numb. It was as excruciating and unbearable as losing him. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t wake Mother. I should just let this happen. Just-
No. No, please, no. Morninglord! O Morninglord, I’m so sorry!
I raised my quivering hand to the cut on my neck and muttered the short incantation, choking on my own blood in the process. The wound closed and the pain subsided slightly. I lowered my hand and looked at it in the light of the campfire. It was bright with my blood. My dagger was next to me, the same color as my hand. What had I done?
I picked up the dagger and stumbled away, slowly, towards the nearby trees. The night was cloudless and the stars of Xerender twinkled brightly in the air. I hated the dark, but I had to get away from the fire. I didn’t want to see the dagger or my bloody hand. Away from the camp, I opened my waterskin and washed myself and the dagger’s blade. For a moment, I stared at the dagger. I should drop it. That’s what the scriptures said. If temptation calls to you, remove the temptation.
Drop the knife.
I thought of Heath. He would be so upset with me. But instead, I sheathed it and returned to the wagon. I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t get rid of that small, minute chance that I could see Heath again. Mother was breathing steadily still. Exhausted, I would guess. I sat down in the dirt at the wagon’s back wheels and put my head into my hands, sobbing as quietly as I could.
Morninglord, I’m so sorry.
I awoke before sunrise the next day. My arms and neck were aching, a haunting memory of what I had done to myself the day before. They would scar, I was sure of it. I felt weak, feeble. Would the Morninglord forgive me? The scriptures said he was a forgiving god. I could only hope that was the case. What was His view on self-inflicted harm? Would he understand my agony?
The sun was ready to rise. I lifted myself off the ground, my muscles stiff and the deep scars on my body hurting with every miniscule movement. The swelling and bruising from the High Priest’s ‘cleansing’ was lessened in the past few weeks, but these scars would afflict me for years. I looked into the wagon and saw Mother still quietly sleeping, hugging my pack to her bosom.
The memory of my sins overwhelmed me suddenly. What if I had died? What would have happened to her? The guilt was immense. I drew up a blanket over Riesz’s shoulders and reached into the wagon, kissing her on the forehead. She did not stir. Past her, I reached and pulled out the prayer blanket, careful to not wake up my sleeping mother. I whispered a short prayer while rubbing my fingers together across the holy sigil around her neck. “Morninglord, forgive me. I cannot wake her. She’ll miss the Sacrament because of me, but she needs rest. Because… Because of me.”
The sunrise would be coming soon. I found a level place in the dirt and laid out the blanket, facing it towards the horizon and oncoming sunrise. Kneeling down, I thought about the fact that we ran out of incense a few days ago and had been unable to purchase anymore from passing merchants. Again, I hoped the Morninglord would forgive us for that. But I paused, suddenly deep in thought. Every day, Mother had led the prayer. Today, I was letting her sleep and would have to do it myself. Was that even allowed? I was not really a cleric, though I was dressed as one, having stolen Heath’s robes before we left. It might be blasphemy to recite the prayer without an oath-bound Dawnbringer to oversee it. The sun was rising over the horizon, so I hoped this would be acceptable.
We welcome thee, O Morninglord, and honor thee this day
The Sun is thy blessing, showing us thy loving way
As we walk, we celebrate and thank its light once more
Its energy and its light touch us to the core
Shining down on land and sea, making things grow and bloom
We honor thee, Dawn Lord, who casts away the gloom
Thy eternal love is always with us, O Lord of the Sun
We devote ourselves to thee, and the darkness we will shun.
I opened my eyes when the prayer was done. The sun was shining brightly over the mountains now, casting a brilliant white light over the land around me. The chill of the night was washing away and I felt the heat and comfort the sun brought. The guilt remained, though. Would the Morninglord be angry? Was He still angry?
I had so many regrets then. If only I had made my vows when I was a child. Maybe I could have saved him. If I had my own sigil, I could have rescued them all. Instead, I have the stolen robes and sigil of the man I loved, a man who was gone and would never be back again. The thought of his death came to me again, but I left the dagger in my sheath this time. I couldn’t abandon Mother. I hated myself for feeling that sweet temptation of being with my Heath again. I hated myself for allowing that thought to take root in my mind. My scars ached again.
That thought came out of nowhere and was almost audible in my head. I sighed. I wanted peace, but I would never get it with these thoughts and images in my mind, nagging at me and eating at my spirit. No, I could not have peace. Not while I did not fully commit myself to the Morninglord as I should have so many years ago.
I robbed myself of so much happiness. I knew I wanted to be a cleric the moment Mother first healed one of my injuries. I knew I wanted to be a part of this religion the first time I prayed and felt that warmth encircle me. And I knew I was in love with Heath the moment we first touched fingers when he stole a potion for me. Why was I so timid and scared? Why could I never be brave?
I had to make an oath to the Morninglord. I had to become a Dawnbringer. It was what I had always wanted to do. Just like I had always wanted to be with Heath. What was keeping me from doing this oath now?
“O Lord of the Sun, please accept my oath-” I began, chanting the words to the hymn I had long since memorized.
The reply came to my mind immediately, interrupting my thoughts. Though it was in the negative, the voice was soft, kind, and tender. I was confused. No? What did that mean? Why not?
You are not yet ready, Leef.
I reached into my – Heath’s – robes and drew out the holy sigil. It was almost hot to the touch, and its edges glistened in the sunrise’s light, like embers in a hearth. “I am not ready?” I asked aloud, focusing on the sigil.
You are kind. You are strong. Magic and the power of life is in you. But turmoil grips you. How would you bring light to the children of Xerender when you yourself are in darkness?
I thought of Heath. I thought of Riesz. I was ashamed of what I had done yesterday. My hand traced the new scar across my neck. “Forgive me,” I whispered. “I won’t… I won’t do that again.”
Do not misunderstand, child. It is not a sin to grieve. I and mine weep with you. The troubles of the world may always have a place in your heart. But only when they no longer control you will I accept your oath as a Dawnbringer.
I felt a pang of anger, not at the Morninglord, but at myself. “I miss him. Everyday, I miss him. How do I…” I paused, not knowing how to say it. “How do I move on?”
There is no need to move on from the memory of your beloved.
A rush of heat was upon me. Not from the sun, but from my own chest. I realized for the first time in my life that I could never be a Dawnbringer. Not because a cruel Dawnmaster would not permit it, but because I truly was not ready, just as the Morninglord said. Not like this. It was so clear to me now. The tenets of faith ran through my mind.
I watched every sunrise. It was a ritual, but did I do so only out of habit?
Was I really always striving to aid? Perhaps not. Ever since I was a child, I avoid helping people because I was so scared of what they would think of me and my ugly skin.
Thinking ahead was not my strong suit. I was a female because I was impulsive. Traveling to the Emerald Isles while still greatly injured, mentally and physically, was probably not a good idea. But I had to escape that temple, right?
The idea of bringing hope was unfathomable to me right now. I was hopeless and had been so my entire life, save for only the last year.
I tried to shun the darkness, but that was certainly a problem. The thoughts of joining Heath were so tempting.
You see why you are not ready. To be a Dawnbringer is to guide the people of Xerender to whatever light and truth they seek. You cannot guide where you cannot see. But know this, child: in time, you will find peace. You will find purpose. You will find reason. You will find clarity. And you will know when it is time to make your oath to me. Your heart will burn and your soul will ignite.
You are favored of the gods, Leef Wendell. As you cherished Heath, I cherish you. The sun will watch your path as it rises and sets.
I nodded and wiped my eyes. “I thank thee, Morninglord. I can do this. I will do this. I’ll do better. I promise.”
Remember this, and remember it well: there is always another dawn.
“There is always another dawn.”
For the first time in what seemed like ages, I smiled.